Traditional Winemaking in Mendoza

Visiting producers of Cabernet Sauvignon in Argentina and Chile last month, I spent some time trying to define regional and sub regional typicities. In Chile there’s a certain sense of restraint, perhaps making a halfway house between old Europe and the more forceful fruits associated with the New World style.  Maipo Valley was elegant, Colchagua more obviously structured, and Apalta the most silky. In Mendoza, well really in Luján de Cuyo since that’s where the serious Cabernet is to be found, the fruits are a bit more forward, but not nearly so obvious as, say, Napa. Both countries have a tendency towards varietal wines at entry level and blends at top level, although the blends are different: with Carmenere in Chile and with Malbec in Mendoza. In spite of that, I found the same difference between the varietal wines and the blends; where direct comparisons were possible, the varietal Cabernet has more of a linear purity, the blend smoother and broader and (to my mind) often more interesting with age.

But my attempts to define the wines in terms of terroir and climate were brought up short by a visit to Bodega Weinert in Mendoza, where winemaker Hubert Weber marches to the beat of a different drum. “The new style of winemaking is not very friendly for aging; if you concentrate on blackcurrant aromas and intensity, aging potential is reduced. Bodega Weinert is classic winemaking -I am not looking for intensity of young aromas, I am looking for complexity of flavor.  The wine spends up to five years in 2000 liter casks of old wood. Gran Reserva is the model,” he says. The lead wine is the Cavas de Weinert, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, and Merlot. The blend stays constant in varietal composition, and is not produced unless all three varieties are of sufficient quality. It was declassified in 1995 because Hubert didn’t like the Cabernet, and in 1998, 2001, and 2005 because of problems with the Merlot. In some years, when one variety is exceptional, there may be a varietal bottling under the Estrella label.

Casks at Bodeha Weinert

Old casks are used to age the wines at Bodega Weinert

With no exposure to new oak, the wines make a distinctive impression: the primal quality of the fruits to come through, showing a savory, almost savage, impression with  age. And the wines certainly age: vintages were lively back to 1977 in a vertical tasting. Younger vintages seemed more dominated by Cabernet, older vintages more by Malbec. I also tasted two of the Estrella wines. A Cabernet Sauvignon from 1994 was still intense and barely showing the austerity of the variety; a Merlot from 1999 showed refinement, and seemed to be aging scarcely any more rapidly than Cabernet Sauvignon. As you go up the scale at Weinert, the wines start out more fruity with faintly savory overtones, and then at the top of the scale the fruits are still there of course (in fact they are more intense) but the savory and even animal notes become predominant. You might say that the wines show an increasingly traditional European flavor spectrum.

So what price terroir and climate as the defining features for common qualities in the wine? I decided my conclusions about different regions were all valid, just so long as the winemakers stayed within the bounds of a certain commonality of approach.  But once the consensus is broken, it’s the winemaker’s hand that shows.

Tasting Notes

Estrella Cabernet Sauvignon, 1994

The immediate impression is savory and developed, with notes of barnyard and gunflint, all integrated with the underlying sweet ripe fruits. There’s still a lot of intensity. This is a powerful wine with an interesting blend of savory and fruity elements, supported by balanced acidity and smooth, firm tannins. Notes of gunflint on the finish really bring the wine to life, with the savory to fruit balance at its peak, almost salty in its overall impression. Only at the very end do you see the austerity of pure Cabernet Sauvignon beginning to take over. No one could call this wine elegant – it has too much intensity for that – but the balance should allow it to continue to age for another decade at least. 14.5% 92 Drink to 2024.

Estrella Merlot, 1999

This Merlot bucks the trend for clay terroir by coming from relatively sandier soils. It spent three years in cask and ten years in concrete before bottling. Initially this seems full and ripe, showing Merlot’s characteristic presence on the mid palate, with the typical barnyard notes of developed Merlot and just a touch of pungent gunflint. But there’s a finer impression than comes from Merlot grown on its more traditional clay, with an impression of refinement that’s unusual for the variety, and there isn’t much impression this will be much shorter lived than the Estrella Cabernet. 91 Drink to 2027.

Cavas de Weinert 2004

This is the current release. The immediate impression are those characteristic savory, almost pungent, almost piquant, notes. Smooth and ripe on the palate, there’s a sensation of coated black fruits. Tannins underneath the fruits dry the finish, but overall the impression is quite glyceriny. There’s an openly delicious quality. 14.5% 89 Drink to 2022.

Cavas de Weinert 1994

Development has taken a slightly different path here, in fact the nearest parallel would be the 1977 Cabernet Sauvignon, as there are only some hints of savory notes and more of a delicate, almost perfumed impression. Apparently this wine has gone up and down, and appeared oxidized a year or so ago, when it was taken off the market for a while, but then it recovered. There’s a slight sense that the smooth fruits are beginning to dry out, allowing the tannins to show more as a dryness on the finish, which is a little nutty. 14.5% 88 Drink to 2016.

Cavas de Weinert 1983

Savory and animal with pungent overtones of gunflint, overall contributing to a slightly sweaty impression (perhaps a touch of Brett). The smooth palate tends to opulence but is beautifully cut by the savory overtones. This is at a perfect tipping point from fruity to savory (although it’s probably been here for a while). Hubert sees this wine as having become more dominated by Malbec over the past five years; indeed, it shows more Malbec as it develops in the glass, becoming smoother, more elegant, more perfumed, less animal. 93 Drink to 2019.

Cavas de Weinert 1977

We compared two bottles. Around 2004 one lot of wines was recorked for an importer who insisted on having fresh corks. The rest remain under original corks. The difference was like night and day. The wine under new corks showed slightly oxidized fresh fruits with hints of raisins; otherwise the wine remains youthful, with the evident fruits lacking savory overtones, and a little restricted in flavor variety. By contrast the wine with the original corks has more of that classic savory impression, with rather restrained fruits, kept lively by an acidic uplift. Matching the greater tertiary development, the color is also a little more garnet. Compared with the varietal Cabernet Sauvignon of the same year, the wine is a little more developed and a little less obvious. 92 Drink to 2019.

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